Woman is a Rational Animal

In prestigious academic communities, it can be common to hear complaints against capitalism, over-intellectualism, and the devaluation of labor from capitalist intellectuals who haven’t ever worked in the labor force. While it’s obvious that academic papers will offer a more erudite perspective on issues as complex as labor and the workforce, it’s also important to recognize who is able to get to the position where they can “intellectually” comment on the current state of affairs for a wide audience with some sense of authority and broad understanding. Simone Weil’s work offers a breath of fresh air in the world of “intellectual” critiques of labor and revolutionary thought. Weil came from an incredibly educated background and was able to write eloquently and succinctly as she criticized a system that she benefited from, while still acknowledging said benefits. Her writings on labor and oppression are both insightful and introspective. Throughout her career Weil transitioned from writing on labor to writing on spirituality, religion, and attention. This switch catalogues her devotion to equality as she used spirituality as a form of disconnect from what she believed to be a world that used wealth, greed, and overconsumption as agents of oppression.

Simone Weil was born into an upper class family in France in 1909, and spent much of her life in intellectual spheres.[1] Most of her childhood was spent studying with private tutors, she later studied at multiple prestigious schools in Paris, and in adulthood she taught at the Lycée Victor-Duruy.[2] As a young child, Weil was incredibly intelligent, a trait shared with her older brother, famous mathematician Andre Weil.[3] But Simone differentiated herself from her brother very early on in her life by her extreme empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others.[4] Early in her literary and journalistic career, Weil’s inherent empathetic nature manifested in a strong concern for the mistreatment of the working class.[5] She began by writing pieces outlining the ways in which oppression and inequality are pushed through the labor system, leading to unfair hours and wages, as well as breeding abusive management.[6] Later in her career, Weil focused on ethnographic immersion to better understand the struggles of the working class. After her experiences actually participating in manual labor, Weil switched her perspective and felt compelled to focus her writings on how religion, spirituality, and the concept of attention could help foster a disconnect from the material world, as she felt that the high values society placed on the ownership of material goods was a major source of socioeconomic inequality.[7]

Simone Weil 2015. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Weil’s arguments against the current system of labor, and for labor reform, were heavily impacted by Marx.[8] She did critique him in her works, stating that his plans for revolution and reform were not enough to bring about equality and end oppression.[9] Weil believed that Marx was not truly grasping the roots of oppression, as she believed that oppression and inequality were systemic issues that affected more than just the present systems of labor.[10] She relied heavily on ancient Greek philosophy as a source of her ethical guidelines for what a just division of labor would be, quoting philosophers such as Sophocles[11] and Plato.[12] Weil utilized Plato’s work in both her writings on labor and her writings on attention and spirituality, stating that he “was a mystic,” like her.[13] In her transition from writing about labor to writing about attention, she utilized Plato’s writings on how labor “draws upwards,”[14] connecting spirituality to manual labor. Through this, Weil was better able to demonstrate why she believed that labor deserved to be held to a higher value in society.[15]

Weil was not blind to the irony invoked by her criticism of societal devaluations of labor. She went on multiple strikes throughout her life, refusing sugar or food, because she believed that it was unjust for her to have access to so much material good when others went hungry.[16] She saw oppression as a complex system, composed of multiple different privileges or lack thereof working in tandem together to tear down certain groups or build up others, and she felt that her societal group (wealthy intellectuals) was often handed more privileges by society and continually built up.[17] She often criticized the other intellectuals she shared space with. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone De Beauvoir chronicled her experience with Simone Weil during the time of the great famine in China, and wrote:

I was told on hearing the news [Weil] had wept; these tears commanded my respect even more than her philosophical talents. I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world. One day I managed to approach her. I don’t remember how the conversation began; she declared in no uncertain terms that one thing alone mattered in the world today: the Revolution that would feed all the people on earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find a meaning for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It is easy to see you have never gone hungry,’ she said. Our relationship stopped there.[18]

Weil’s ability to categorize and critique her background and others from it further supported her arguments in the world of ethics. Her decision to partake in ethnographic methodology seemed to stem from the value she placed on seeing situations from multiple perspectives. One of Weil’s more famous writings was her book Factory Journal,[19] in which she describes her experience working at an American engineering factory. She states that the experience was both physically and mentally demanding. Her writing outlines the grueling nature of the work, including burns she endured from operating an industrial furnace, and the long hours that she and her fellow factory workers were put through, in overheated factories without breaks for rest or water.[20] While one would hope that intellectuals would be capable of empathizing with working class people inherently, the truth of the matter was that Weil publishing her perspective from working temporarily in an American factory was the only way many upper class academics would have listened and attempted to empathize with the difficulties of such horrific working conditions.

Weil went into the experience expecting to be most affected by the physical tolls of working in the labor force, but instead she was most impacted by the mental and emotional stressors of the working environment.[21] She found that management used humiliation as a tactic to tear down workers, particularly women, and she attributed this to the lack of revolutionary spirit among working class people at the time.[22] These difficult experiences in the factory led to her later writings on religion and spirituality, and led to her primary thesis on the importance of attention.[23] In her essay “Waiting for God,” Weil wrote that manual labor made her feel more connected to God, and increased her devotion and her understanding on the importance of attention, and maintaining one’s attention on a singular task.[24] She also used this essay to further detail the emotional toll her months in the factory had on her, stating that “What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear.”[25]

Weil’s ethical platform was reliant on the idea of attention, in which she argued that attention was a powerful force that should hold greater value in society, similar to labor.[26] In her “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Weil argues that any time spent wholly devoting one’s attention is a way of achieving other-worldly progress.[27] Weil also believed that sustained attention was important for detaching from one’s ego and having a more unbiased perspective on the world.[28] This clearly worked for her in practice, as one can see from the previously stated evidence on how Simone Weil was able to detach herself from her privileged position in academia to acknowledge and fight against wage inequality.

Simone Weil and family 1916. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Weil’s main form of practicing attention devotion was through prayer.[29] Later in her career, religion became a very important part of Weil’s life, affecting not only her day to day behavior, but also most of her writings. Weil was never particularly connected to material goods — as a child, she turned down a necklace as a present from a relative because of “the discriminatory nature of luxury”[30] — but she was able to use her religion and devotion to God as a way of furthering her disconnection from the material world.[31] As a writer, educator, and philosopher, Weil’s religious views impacted not just her worldview but also her understanding of the universe. Weil combined Christian perspectives with beliefs from Plato, and viewed God as a being who had chosen to withdraw to create the universe.[32] This likely stemmed from her continual links with sacrifice, and led to her writings on dropping one’s ego.

Weil and her writings were criticized throughout her life.[33] Her earlier writings on labor were criticized for being too radical,[34] and she was criticized for her emotional responses to social issues.[35] Her later religious affiliations and writings were also criticized, and it was argued that she could not be taken seriously in the world of social science because of her spiritual beliefs.[36] Many of these criticisms took place after her death, as Simone Weil lived a very short life and her position as a woman in social science during the early to mid 20th century made it difficult for her writing to garner a great amount of publicity.[37]

Simone Weil died of tuberculosis on August 24, 1943 at the tragically young age of 34,[38] but her progress in the realm of social science in her short life lives on to this day. Weil’s equalizing perspective of the world combined with her extreme empathy and ability to look outside of herself offers a stepping stone for examining works in the world of social science. It encourages questions such as: what perspectives are we viewing social issues from, and why? Are these writers and authors in the world of academia attempting to fully understand non-academic, non-intellectual dilemmas and big world problems?

Weil’s ethical writings and the value she placed on attention are particularly interesting to look at in a more modern context. In this day and age, sustained attention is even more rare, and therefore valuable, because of the ways in which technology and media attempt to continually take our attention away from the task at hand. With many people around the world struggling to maintain their attention on any one task, writings that value attention for the sake of attention instead of for the sake of immediate measurable progress or results are invaluable. In particular, Weil’s approach to labor, and her argument that labor and attention are inherently linked, could offer a lot of insight for workers who are struggling with the effect technology has had on work-life-balance. Now more than ever, managers have access to their staff around the clock and the disconnection between one’s labor and their free time. Since much of the working class works for people who have access to them 24/7 through their telephone number or email, Weil’s writing and her arguments on the importance of valuing the time of laborers could not be more poignant.

About the author:

Charlotte McAllister-Farmer is a second year student at the University of Chicago, planning to major in data science with a minor in quantitative social analysis. Charlotte is a percussionist who participates in the University Symphony Orchestra as well as the Percussion Ensemble. In her free time, she enjoys watching MTV’s Teen Wolf and solving crosswords.


Featured Image: Simone Weil. Source: The Ethics Center 2017.

Beauvoir, Simone. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. Print.

Fielder, Leslie A. “Introduction.” Routledge.

Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/weil/#H3

Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 10 Mar. 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/simone-weil/#Ethi.

Tastard, Terry. “Simone Weil’s Last Journey.” America Magazine, 09 Apr. 2001, https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/335/article/simone-weils-last-journey

Weil, Simone. (2009). “Factory Journal.” Formative Writings (Routledge Revivals) (1st ed.). Routledge.https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203092514

Weil, Simone. (1958). “Oppression and Liberty.”

Weil, Simone. (1942). “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”

Weil, Simone (1951). “Waiting on God.”

[1] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[2] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[3] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[4] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[5] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[6] Weil, Simone. “Waiting for God”

[7] Tastard, Terry. “Simone Weil’s Last Journey”

[8] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[9] Weil, Simone. “Oppression and Liberty.”

[10] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[11] Weil, Simone. “Oppression and Liberty.”

[12] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[13] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[14] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[15] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[16] Fielder, Leslie A. “Introduction”

[17] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[18] Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 239

[19] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[20] Tastard, Terry. “Simone Weil’s Last Journey”

[21] Weil, Simone. “Factory Journal.”

[22] Weil, Simone. “Factory Journal.”

[23] Tastard, Terry. “Simone Weil’s Last Journey”

[24] Weil, Simone. “Waiting for God”

[25] Weil, Simone. “Waiting for God”

[26] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[27] Weil, Simone. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”

[28] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[29] Simone, Weil. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”

[30] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

[31] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[32] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[33] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[34] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[35] Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 238

[36] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[37] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.”

[38] Lynch, Tony. “Simone Weil.”

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